Monday, November 26, 2018

Expectations in Relationships


“How can I please you if I don’t know what you expect?” That is the salient question in many relationships. Thus, it would seem to be important for both parties to communicate requirements clearly. We should express general expectations such as being fair minded: if it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander. Both parties should communicate general expectations about being treated as one wishes to be treated, or about casting aside ego and truly expressing interest in the feelings, pursuits or desires of the other.

The writer of the ancient book of Micah in holy writ gets specific about expectations. In the New International Version of the Bible, Micah, chapter six, verse eight, we find these words, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” And, in relationships, it would appear that justice, mercy and humility solve a lot of problems.

Most of us are familiar with that often-replicated statue of Lady Justice. She is blindfolded, holding a perfectly balanced scale in her left hand. In her right, there is a sword, pointed down to a book, presumably opened to Exodus 20, the 10 Commandments, upon which our idea of justice is founded. The blindfold denotes equality: all are to be treated the same under the law. The scale represents even-handedness—the just do not cheat anyone in any fashion. The sword gives us a view of the power of the law and the fact that it points to the old law of Moses gives credence to the venerable ideas upon which much of the Judeo-Christian world is based.

The second requirement, that of mercy, is certainly related to justice, but goes beyond it in human relationships. What has come to be known as the Golden Rule, treat others the way you want to be treated, has its counterpart in many world religions. In Christianity, it means preferring others to yourself. Part of the Great Commandment given by Jesus is to love others as we love ourselves. Note that we must love ourselves before we can love others. There is no room for low self-esteem, but too much ego fouls things up, too. Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird says that one must put himself into the shoes of others and walk around a little bit to understand them. Being willing to be so shod is a primary requirement for merciful relationships.

Now, that final requirement is double-barreled—walk humbly with God. When you leave a person who is truly humble, you do not say, “Wow, that person was self-effacing and unpretentious.” Chances are you say, “That person seemed truly interested in me.” A truly humble person is self-forgetful and other-centered. That kind of demeanor goes a long way in healing broken relationships. But what about the “with God” part? I don’t know about you, but I cannot be just, merciful and humble on my own.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Does the Past Exist?


I have studied the works of the great Mississippi writer, William Faulkner, in depth for a long time. One statement he made has perplexed me all along. He said there is no such thing as “was.” He explained that if “was” existed, there would be no cause for grief or sorrow. He meant that we would lose nothing if the past was not past. But it is, isn’t it? What is he talking about?

St. Augustine wrote that the past is nothing but a present memory and that the future is but a present expectation. All we have, in Augustine’s view, is the “now” and once we say the word “now,” it instantly becomes part of the past. So, Augustine’s conception plays into the idea that time is fluid. The French philosopher Bergson’s conceived of time that way. To him, time is durational, not sequential. For example, when we meet someone new, we never learn about that person’s life sequentially, from birth to the present, but durationally, a little segment here and a little there. Stream-of-consciousness writing grew from that idea.

Another Frenchman, the novelist Proust, brought this durational sense to bear beautifully in his art. He coined the terms voluntary remembrance and involuntary remembrance. The voluntary kind occurs when we put forth effort to remember a name, a place, an experience or an idea. Involuntary remembrances are those seemingly forgotten moments of the past that are brought back by a sensation: a smell, a sound, a touch, a glimpse or a taste. (As an aging fellow, I find myself struggling more and more with the voluntary kind, but the involuntary ones happen easily now and more often).

For example, the smell of freshly cut watermelon brings back a specific memory of my early childhood in great detail. It happened on the porch of the old farm house in Louisiana where I lived the first part of my life. I was three years old or younger and Aunt Sarah cut open a large yellow-meat watermelon and handed me a slice. It must have been a happy experience, seeing that my joy level rises with that stimulating smell from well over a half-century later. In the same way, organ music makes me sleepy. Perhaps that is because radio soap operas came on right after noon during my childhood nap time. These programs were always introduced by organ music, full tremolo.

So, maybe Faulkner, literary giant that he was, erred in his opinion of “was.” It does exist, if only in our psyches. Shrinks make a living off the idea that nothing we ever experience is lost. We may not be able to call up any memory we want to voluntarily, but involuntary remembrances may be proof that everything is recorded. I have read books on life-after-death experiences of those who have expired and somehow revived. One constant feature of the reports is that the lives of the newly dead are reviewed—they see their entire experience on earth in a flash, non-sequentially, durationally. As suspect as many of these accounts are, they do give some credence to the fact that “was” exists. Sorry, William Faulkner, I still like you.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Balance


The wise old man came for Sunday lunch at the Tavern. He is as thin as a wafer but eats like a Sumo wrestler. He exploited the buffet with gusto. “You must have been hungry,” I observed. “I noticed that myself,” he replied with a chuckle. After lunch, we rocked on the front porch and talked about a great range and mixture of topics.

My mountain bicycle stays on the porch and he wanted to know all about it, from the disc brakes to the 21-speed derailleurs. He said he judged it to be a well-balanced machine that required good balance from a rider. “Have you ever wrecked it,” he wanted to know. “Just one time, at a dead standstill,” I replied. “I had stopped at the bottom of the great hill that rises from Pioneer Cemetery when I attempted to mount the vehicle against gravity and gravity won.” We laughed about that a good while until he lit on the topic of balance.

“You know, Dan, Horace, the first Century rhetorician believed in balance in speaking and writing. The old Roman wrote that all artful communication must be dulcet et utile, meaning sweet and useful; we would say entertaining and enlightening. And, those two elements, Horace wrote, must be kept in balance. If the scale tips too far in the direction of entertainment, the communication seems trivial and inconsequential. On the other hand, if the communication works too hard at enlightenment, it gets boring and loses the audience’s attention. So, balance makes the writing or speaking both fun and pithy.”

The wise old man gratefully received the hot tea my wife brought out. Providing crocheted lap robes because of the dropping temperature, she joined us on the porch. She said, “What was that about balance?” The wise old man said, “You know, Mrs. Ford, I work on a donkey and goat ranch near Ruston and I have a couple of gelding donkeys I plow with down there. Their names are Check and Balance. Check is the absent-minded one, not always knowing and obeying gee, haw, whoa and back up. Balance, however, is obedient, but not as strong and hardy as Check. Between the two of them, we get the job done, though it sometimes takes considerable negotiation.”

“Makes me proud to be an American,” my wife joked. The wise old man laughed so heartily that he jostled his tea. Then he said, “Thank God for checks and balances in our government. Lady Justice requires it. You know, that statue, in ancient iterations, had a sword in the hand not occupied with the fulcrum and scales. It was pointed down to the Ten Commandments, the very place our formalized sense of justice comes from. Though Justice is blind, she is poised to protect the law. That is balance in itself: peace is the goal, but justice must be protected.

“Wow,” my wife said, “you are always a welcome visitor. How did you get here today?” I rode the train and took a taxi. I’ve been down in Denton with my girlfriend. I lead a balanced life, and she keeps me in check.”

Monday, October 1, 2018

Home Again


The premise of Thomas Wolfe’s great novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, is that we change to such a degree when we are away from home for any length of time that home seems different when we go back there. Also, people who have stayed at home change, too, so, those visions in our absence of home as utopia are shattered upon our return.

Robert Frost’s narrative poem, “Death of the Hired Man,” reiterates the friction brought about by change, both in those who wander and in those who stay at home. Silas, the hired man, comes back ostensibly to help with haying, but Warren, the farm owner, and his wife, Mary, sense that he has come back to die. Quite cynically, Warren defines home as the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Mary, however, says that home is something granted that you don’t deserve. Silas prevails and has his way in the midst of all the changing circumstances. It is as if Frost believes that no one deserves the blessings of home, but everyone’s longing for home should be honored.

My own longing for home was intense during my three-year tour of duty in Germany. When I finally got home, though, I realized that everything had changed, both in my folks and in me: Mother and Pop seemed to have grown and changed as much as I had, and I quickly realized that we had grown in different directions altogether.

Peter, as depicted in the last chapter of John’s gospel, had grown dramatically in a direction very different from his familiar occupation of fisherman. Nevertheless, we find him attempting to return to the trade, even though his life had been significantly altered by recent mind-blowing events. Camping at the lake, one night, he said, “I’m going fishing,” and several of his companions jumped into the boat with him. They fervently fished all night long but caught nothing. At about dawn, a fellow standing on the bank the length of a football field away, said, “Hey, y’all, any luck?” They gave the fisherman’s shrug. He said, “Throw the net on the other side of the boat. That’s where the fish are.” When they pulled in the net, they had 153 nice ones. That’s when John said, “It is the Lord.”

At that, Peter put on his coat and jumped into the water. Ordinarily, one would strip down to jump in, but Peter probably thought he was going to be walking on the water again, since it was the Lord over there on the bank. He had to swim on in though and Jesus had some fish cooking and some bread toasting on coals. He said, bring some of those you caught and add them. Come have breakfast. He already had something cooking and wanted them to participate. That is the Lord.

So, things had changed radically for Peter. He wanted to return home, that is, to the familiar occupation of fishing. However, he found that he had changed and that Jesus had changed his profession to that of fishing for men, or, as he told Peter later in the day, feeding his sheep. When we realize, “It is the Lord,” everything changes. You can’t go home again.

Monday, September 24, 2018

When a Lie is Not a Lie


Each blind person in the famous parable of the elephant reported that the creature was something other than what it actually was—a rope, a tree, a wall. Our perceptions are often not absolute truth. There is an absolute truth, though. The elephant existed, though perceptions of it were diverse. We should not get stuck on initial impressions, but keep looking for the elephant as it truly is.

A false story is a lie only if it is intended to deceive. In fact, some false stories can tell a deeper truth than factual ones. For example, Aesop’s fables are obviously false on the surface—animals cannot talk—but they contain morals and other life applications that could not be communicated as effectively without the narrative. Also consider that statement ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth about removing the log hanging out of your eye before attempting to remove a speck from your companion’s. The moral of judging yourself before condemning others comes through much better by way of that image than by abstract moralizing.

Similarly, Aesop’s fable of The Dog and the Wolf illustrates that freedom is more important than comfort. A famished wolf in the fable creeps into the yard of a well-fed dog and compliments him on his sleek appearance. The dog is comfortable and happy, but the wolf notices a worn place on the dog’s neck and comments upon it. The dog says, “That is where they keep me tied up. You see, I belong to the humans in that house.” The wolf acts out his reply by fading back into the woods. Thus, the fable asserts that it is better to be free and hungry than captive and well-fed.

So, there is a place for false stories of the kind that tell a deeper truth than fact. But, chances are that when you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you do not wax parabolic. You tell it like it is, as the Hippies used to chant during Viet Nam and Watergate. And, to some degree, they were right to question language of obfuscation and political expediency. However, we should not question one’s honesty just because he or she has a command of a sophisticated vocabulary. The late Democrat Sam Irwin of North Carolina, who became famous for his command of language and his almost British Southern accent during the Watergate hearings, was once questioned as to how he knew a document carried a specific meaning. His reply was classic: “Because I read English; it's my mother tongue.”

Our mother tongue should be designed to get rid of everything that is not the truth. As in Ephesians 4, we should practice speaking the truth in love. Just as the sculptor scrapes away all that is not the work of art in a block of marble, the skilled speaker or writer gets rid of obfuscation and gets down to the nitty gritty truth.  Truth is not relative. It is one thing, spin it how we will.

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Unique Friendship


During my time in graduate school at Auburn University, an entomologist and his wife lived in the apartment next door to my wife and me. The bug man and I became car-washing buddies one Sunday afternoon. We developed a friendship and remained close buddies throughout grad school and afterwards. At the outset of our relationship, he seemed to be a sternly serious-minded fellow who did not smile or laugh at all. I have always been quick with a quip, pun or joke, so, at first, I got a lot of blank stares from my stolid friend. Later, as our friendship developed, though, he learned to laugh. I saw why he was reluctant to laugh when I realized he could not control the mirth. I mean, he was a fall-to-the-floor laugher.

He had a study going on out at one of Auburn’s large ponds involving weirdly constructed flytraps. He was studying some esoteric thing about reproductive habits of adult horseflies and he was diligent and focused. He invited me to go along on the horsefly study one Saturday, telling me to bring my fishing stuff because there were bream in that pond. While he collected his bugs along the bank and attended to his clipboard, I pulled in one big old bulge-headed bluegill after another. Later, back at the apartment when I started scaling the catch with a spoon, my friend stopped me. He had a better idea. With the skill of a surgeon he skinned and filleted those bream in a jiffy. My wife fried the plump filets Southern fashion with French fries and hot water cornbread and he and his wife joined us for a great feast, replete with onions and radishes.

After he received his masters’ degree, as an Army reservist, he shipped out to Viet Nam. I got several letters from him and wrote him often, sending him encouraging words with some good jokes I thought he would like. In my mind’s eye I could see him falling back on his bunk laughing breathlessly. He came home safely from the war and moved on to his first civilian job at about the time I joined the faculty at Southern State College.

Early in my tenure there, the bug man called me. He was in town and we went to eat and he and his wife spent some time with us. He told me he was studying the larvae of mosquitos from holes up in trees. His theory was that mosquitos that deposited their larvae in tree holes were hardier than those that developed at ground level. They invited us to camp alongside them up at De Gray so I could help him collect wigglers. We went and enjoyed it. He climbed trees with a syphon hose and jar and came back down with his prize. I watched and tried not to say anything funny. It was a successful field trip.

A few weeks after that visit, I received a U. S. Government package containing a test tube with an adult tree-hole mosquito mounted on a pin, purportedly from those wigglers we collected. I gave it a prominent place on my desk as I must have been the only English teacher in America that had an adult tree hole mosquito on display.

Monday, September 3, 2018

From Curse to Blessing


Don’t you just love those rare instances in which what seems to be a curse turns out to be a blessing? I have only had a few of those in my life. One of them happened at Auburn University half a century ago.

Upon my graduation from Southern State College, Auburn offered me a National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Fellowship that covered three years of study toward the doctor of philosophy. It paid tuition and a modest salary. I wrote the Veterans Administration and told them about the NDEA Fellowship since I was also drawing the G. I. Bill for veterans returning to school and I was aware that it was illegal at that time to receive two kinds of federal benefits.

The VA kept sending the checks, though, and I opened a savings account for the money in case I ever had to pay it back. I called the VA and reminded them of the letter. They found it in their file and thanked me for the reminder. But the checks kept coming. At about the time that bank account had accrued close to $1,000, a lot of money for 1967, the graduate school dean called me in and asked if I were receiving the G.I. Bill money in addition to the NDEA stipend. “Yes, sir, but I notified the VA that I had the fellowship.” He replied that I had not notified him about the G. I. Bill money I was receiving and that I should have. I explained that I did not consider that necessary as long as one party knew. I told him my preference was to keep the NDEA and drop the G. I. Bill.

He told me that there could be penalties involved, and dismissed me with that vague information. Here I am, I thought, trying to get a Ph. D. degree on benefits that came from serving my country and excelling in studies. I notified the VA doing what I thought was right and still and I may go to jail. There was fear as well as self-pity in that thought. That evening at dinner, I told my wife about the visit with the dean and she was equally concerned. Her firm support was a mainstay during that difficult part of the graduate school experience. There at the outset of my advanced studies, I felt as if I were out of my league anyway, but that visit to the dean almost led me to other pursuits.

Well, in a few days the dean called me back in and, in a much kinder voice, said that he had done some research and that the VA sent him a copy of the letter of notification I had, indeed, registered with them. He also said that President Lyndon B. Johnson had the week before signed legislation that cleared the way for vets to receive multiple federal benefits regarding educational issues. Thus, I kept the fellowship, had money in the bank and did not go to jail. The blessing was almost equal to the curse.